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Cultural references and authenticity

Caveat: This post took rather a long time to gestate, so please excuse the references to old tweets (in Twitter terms!).

Whilst waiting around on jury service recently, I spent some time reading Keats as part of my general project to correct the blind spots of my general C19 knowledge (at university I got to choose what I studied perhaps slightly more than is good for me!). I was reading for fun, hence slowly, and an idle thought popped into my head as I loitered on the phrase “pretty hummer” (l.2, ‘Sleep and Poetry’, for those interested). I thought about whether I could ever use it given modern connotations of the word ‘hummer’, and whether I’d sound like an arse if I did (or in attempting to explain myself), and then I mentally bemoaned the lack of general literary knowledge today. And then I stopped myself.

It’s quite a classist expectation, isn’t it? A bit like the constant moans about how exam standards are going down. Or is that quite a classist response, expecting most people to know about and embrace X Factor but be baffled and disengaged when it comes to literary works like Endymion?

I stopped myself particularly because the train of thought reminded me of a recent Twitter discussion between the wonderful @cnlester and @parislees about how to approach concepts like intersectionality with casual acquaintances and strangers day-to-day without sounding either alienating or patronising, as well as CN’s very thoughtful reflections on CN’s mother’s experience as a working-class, first-generation university student, immersed in — and isolated by — cultural references that she didn’t ‘get’.

CN pointed out:

It’s a tough balancing act.

I feel as though I’ve been on both ends of this. As a overly bookish, not-very-cool kid growing up in a working class area where my family didn’t quite fit, I learnt quickly to (try to) fake it, pretending to have seen the new Steps video (I didn’t even know how one would see such a thing…), laughing and nodding along to all sorts of things that baffled me. Kids were canny (and rude) enough to call me out on it now and again, which is one of the high (read low) points of mortification.
At university, I perfected my neutral face, my ‘oh yes, I know exactly what you mean’ expression, and people questioned less (either they were more polite or I was more convincing). I’ve always been wonderfully impressed by those with the self-possession to just come out and say, ‘What’s a carafe?’ without what I would have felt to be obligatory blushes. (Fortunately, books taught me this one, otherwise I’d have had to relive those memories of mortification whilst trying to answer.)
Assimilating new references into my own internal reference frame without being too obvious is now second nature. In a way this is a good thing, a sort of flexibility and openmindedness that can be used to good effect. However, it leaves me with a sort of cultural cautiousness, a cultural contingency. It makes my class presentation essentially inauthentic no matter what circumstances I find myself in, and it can feel uncomfortably disingenuous at times, particularly when I catch myself making assumptions about what people ‘ought’ to know (or even do know) when I ought to know better.
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